GENTLE READERS: Mail delivery used to be a sport for the whole family. The dog was excited to see the mailman (as he was likely to be then), even if the mailman was not excited to see the dog. The baby loved to rip up the packaging and stomp on the foam bubbles. That left Miss Manners time to read her letters in peace, an activity she finds both enjoyable and enlightening.
But then the children grew up, and so did the technology. Since the mail started arriving electronically, Miss Manners’ Gentle Readers have deluged her with complaints that their friends and relations never put down their cellular telephones.
They are constantly checking for emergencies. Unless they had left children at home in possession of matchbooks, the potential emergencies are always described as work-related. And perhaps they are. Miss Manners does not peek at other people’s screens.
But putting aside the increasingly flabby definition of “emergencies,” she recognizes a valid concern. The volume of work-related mail has increased enormously from the days of typewriters and mimeograph machines, and employees on the receiving end also have complaints. They are constantly on call, and they are aware that their personal relationships are being harmed.
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The standard explanation is that greater email volume is an unavoidable consequence of an increase in the speed and complexity of business. That this garners sympathy for their heavy responsibilities may have caused them to overlook an equally plausible explanation:
Business people are becoming windy. Many are still too struck by the technology itself to stop and think about how to use it politely. And social media have taught them to think of self-editing as a vice rather than a courtesy.
So there is all that mail in the inbox and someone has to read it, and alongside the announcements of free cake in the lunchroom, there may be real emergencies.
Miss Manners recognizes that it is probably futile to suggest that not every aspect of one’s job is of Lifesaving Importance. Or that having a sense of perspective about our work can improve our ability to do that work. Or that every business consultant’s dictum to Think Outside the Box requires time to think.
But she asks that bosses and workers alike stop hurling accusations of insufficient dedication at workers who do not respond at noon on a Sunday to every thought that passes through a co-worker’s head. Employees may be intimidated into responding even if the boss had no other intent than to clear out his own inbox.
She asks everyone to acknowledge that employees — and bosses, too — are entitled to some time away from the office. Someone should actually read all those emails from Human Resources about how much they care about Their People. Just not during family dinner.
If there must be after-hours communication, the technology itself may be used to distinguish the pressing from the vital-but-less-time-sensitive. Company policy could, for example, dictate that agreed-upon categories of emergencies are handled by telephone or text rather than email.
What matters is that everyone, including bosses, take time away from those devices to think about the contents of the correspondence — and the welfare of the correspondents.
Judith Martin writes the Miss Manners column with help from her son, Nicholas Ivor Martin, and her daughter, Jacobina Martin. Send your questions to Miss Manners at her website, MissManners.com; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.
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